Stop me if you’ve heard this before; the UConn men’s basketball team fell behind early, fought hard to get back into the game, but let it slip away at the end. The Huskies fell to Tulsa this afternoon 79-75 in overtime to fall to 10-9 on the season and 1-5 in the American Athletic Conference.
Freshman James Bouknight led the way with 16 points, while senior Christian Vital and redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson added 11 and 12 points, respectively. Freshman Akok Akok produced his best game of the season, with 13 points, seven rebounds, and seven blocks, all career highs.
Overall, as has been the case in the past, there wasn’t enough offensive production to come out on top. UConn shot 27% from three, with Vital going an ice-cold 0-8. That’s now five losses by five points or less for the Huskies, who are consistently one possession away from winning the game, but never seem to make the right plays down the stretch.
The game started with nearly three minutes of scoreless play, which gives you an idea of the type of game it was. UConn settled for deep threes against Tulsa’s 2-3 zone, and the Golden Hurricanes were bothered by Husky ball pressure. All of this added up to a whopping six field goals between the two teams 10 minutes in.
For the most part, UConn seemed to move the ball well north and south through the zone, but just couldn’t knock down the looks. The Huskies continued success on defense made up for the missed looks on offense. However, some sloppy play to close out the half led to a five-point deficit for the Huskies heading into the break.
Tulsa was content to let UConn keep shooting and missing. And the problem with an ice-cold offense is that eventually — no matter how good your defense is — it eventually cracks. Tulsa opened up a nine-point lead with 14:18 left, and the Huskies were in desperate need of a shot in the arm.
It came from positive plays from the underclassmen. Gaffney, Bouknight, and Akok Akok brought UConn and the crowd back into it with drawn charges, coast-to-coast buckets, and blocks. The three freshman — along with Brendan Adams and Sidney Wilson — gave Gampel some much-needed energy as they put on a 12-0 run.
With the young guns leading the charge, UConn’s offensive production finally caught up with its consistent defensive intensity. But after a Wilson and-one helped UConn retake the lead, Bouknight picked up his fourth foul and the lineup that had been working so well had to be broken up.
Akok Akok and Bouknight headed to the bench, and Tulsa big Martins Igbanu kept the Golden Hurricanes in the game with some nifty post work. Akok wouldn’t ride the pine for long; in addition to his usual shot-blocking presence, he finished plays at the rim and stretched the floor with a big three.
With 1:55 left and the game tied, UConn gave up two offensive rebounds and eventually a basket. An Adams drive to the cup rimmed out, and with eight seconds to go and down three, UConn was in dire straits late once more. But Hurley a drew up a great play; Vital flared to the corner off a down-screen from Akok and Gaffney’s penetration found Vital, who was fouled on the corner three.
The senior captain calmly nailed the three freebies to send the game into overtime.
UConn went to zone briefly to open the extra session, but Tulsa responded with six straight points and the Huskies switched back to man. The back breaker came off an Igbanu bucket with three seconds on the shot clock off an out-of-bounds play.
Tulsa always seems to bring its best against UConn; heading into today, the last five times these two teams played the score was decided by a total of 14 points. Frank Haith always seems to get his teams to outperform their preseason ranking, and this year is no exception. But once more, Dan Hurley and company are left looking at the same script; enough defensive intensity to remain competitive, but lacking the finishing punch to close out games.
Going forward, any Husky that can knock down open looks or crack a zone will be in line for a serious boost in minutes. If there’s one reason for optimism, it’s the kids. Gampel was electric when the freshmen staged the second-half comeback, and a lineup of the Gaffney-Bouknight-Adams-Wilson-Akok looked like a real two-way threat. As the losses pile up, a storyline to watch will be how often those guys take the floor together, as opposed to being inter-mixed with some of the less effective upperclassmen.
UConn heads to Temple on Wednesday, Jan. 29 to take on the Owls at 7 p.m. ET in a game that will be televised on ESPNews.